The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with poet Joe Weil.
JH: Congratulations on your first book diatomhero: religious poems. I treasure how this poetry holds every religion responsible for being authentic and explores exactly what kind of turmoil/freedom of movement (of creed, language, time, space) arises in such a busy atmosphere.
I’m thinking specifically of Christianity’s notion of finite resting places (blazing hot or room-temperature) teamed with Buddhist/Hindu reincarnation notions and Greek polytheistic elements. The book is a cream vichyssoise where these ingredients are available to be salted, peppered, and consumed. Could you talk a little about how the book is and is not a supplement to all religious texts?
LF: I love the word ‘vichyssoise’. It’s blonde as a Gibson girl in a mint satin evening gown, as per the synesthetic-green letter ‘V’. Definitely a word with the curls of the sun.
The title, diatomhero, is an anagram of the bible’s “I am the door”, a statement that comes full circle in the book’s final image, and applies just as much to Christ as it does to Janus. To open the doors of all myths and religions, to ‘let’ their darkness, (un)like bloodletting. At the end of the book, when Bluebeard’s chamber is opened, there’s not slaughtered women hanging on hooks, but far fields stretching out—a wide open country to fly out into ecstatically, like a heavy symphony unlocking its heavy doors and letting itself out of itself in its final movement. As opposed, for example, to a story like Poe’s Red Death, that ends walled inexorably up in its own terror. I’m not talking about imposing one’s own will against the will of the muse/work itself, or about ‘revisionism’ or ‘escapism’, but about a deliverance seductive enough to embed itself in the text without compromising it. Like Tangina in Poltergeist saying, “this house is clean”, only it’s “this myth is clean”… but with no tricks to follow.
A supplement is a continuation. The question is whether the myth is on a blind loop, or if it’s aware of intrusions. If we took the story of Princess Thermuthis finding the infant Moses among the reeds, but put the river hag Jenny Greenteeth in his place, what would that have done to the evolution of Christianity? If Hera had given birth to Christ; if Mary had found herself with Zeus’ child, because he came to her in one of his characteristic disguises, as he came to Danae as golden rain, etc. These combinations can be perverse and amusing or they can be profound: Ariarhod and Christ falling in love, and Christ finding, in love for her, a new world outside Christianity—like Cortez, or like the iconic awe of someone who’s never left the heartland seeing the sea for the first time. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen describes a relationship as being like a shark that has to keep moving forward or it will die—so we can apply that to myth, and of course to the myth of the dying god. If the inhabitants of a myth found themselves on a dying planet—a planet that was, of course, the myth itself—they would have to evacuate, to look for a new life in another legend. In somewhat of the same spirit, then, immigrants—drifters—from other afterlives appear as migrant workers in the Elysian Fields.
Theoretically, too, the book is written for synesthetes. And, as such, is ideally meant to be seen through synesthesia, like 3-D films are meant to be seen through 3-D glasses. And this is where the mythological blending/puree meets an ideal medium, because of course the synesthesete already has a sense of the dis/harmony of totally “unrelated” things—which are not really unrelated at all. So essentially the book is a preliminary study of synesthesia as myth and religion. I say “preliminary” because I’ve not gone near as far with this concept as I want to. diatomhero is an incomplete book, and it’s a work in progress, as all poems are. It plays with the “worlds colliding” theme, which a lot of people have of course played with, but I would like to think/hope (?) it does it in a unique way.
JH: The play turned-compact long poem makes for a jarring opening sequence which describes a manufacturing plant for souls and bodies. I love how this really kicks out the chairs from under the audience from the beginning. Readers must navigate the balance between the playful and the scarier. Everything familiar remains in the ball room but it’s simply misplaced, like hearing your favorite childhood song performed by a band of Gorgons on a harp strung with your mother’s funeral hair-do. The willingness to travel these fissures is crucial to enjoying the poems. Was there a purposeful attempt in these afterlife sequences to balance nostalgic memory with what are undeniably horrifying dream elements?
LF: I love that Gorgon/funeral hair juxtaposition, and I love this question. I think nostalgia, or merely fantasy, is a natural retreat in times of trauma. But—again with the deliverance premise— there’s the idea that a dream is an innocent desperately trying to communicate its plight through a nightmare, rather like what happens at the very moving end of the Spanish horror film The Orphanage. Variations of this concept have often been explored in Grimm and Perrault, et al. The innocent as needing help in being extracted from the context of a nightmare, but being unable to tell anyone how to do help them. The imprisoned who have to be saved by the freer being virtuous (Beauty and the Beast), or by sheer chance (The Frog Prince.) It’s up to the rescuer to figure out the riddle. And this is perfectly apropos because it is, of course, how the process of wisdom actually works. However, diatomhero is not about being rescued, but about being resourceful enough to rescue yourself. And about the arc as rescue, the underside of the arc that will return you to its exact opposite: a divine inevitability, a point beyond which the absence of good becomes so acute that the reality of its difference from evil is unmistakable, and no longer philosophically debatable. This, to put in the simplest terms, is salvation by default. And it takes us to a quote by Djuna Barnes, one of the most beautiful quotes of all, which I used as one of diatomhero’s epigraphs: ‘the unendurable is the beginning of the curve of joy’. I had a dream once that someone gave me that quote—the quote itself, in words—encased in an 80s style/Desperately Seeking Susanish jelly bracelet. That was the way that particular observation presented the true genius of itself to me—by literalizing itself.
JH: Emere’s Tobacconist is noted as having been originally constructed as a ten-act minimalist play, a whittling down that resulted in many sleepless nights. What sections did you extract and do you plan on producing it as theater in the future?
LF: I’m still negotiating the technicalities of the staging (and by “negotiating” I mean going over it in my own head, because nothing is on the table right now as far as production goes). Most of the acts are in fact truncated. The car accident victim who sees the bloody windshield of his car turned to a red stained glass window as he enters paradise reappears; in the extended scene Marc Chagall is there, having been commissioned to render the last earthly memory of the man into something sublime. So the rest of that scene is dialogue between those two men. There’s a monologue by Shura, the daughter of Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill, in which Shura enters—and goes wandering around—the childhood memories of the woman who found her dead and tried to revive her. There’s the blood of the slain turning white socks pink in heaven’s washing machine. There’s more Huck Finnish adventures down the river with John and Pearl in Night of the Hunter, in which they meet all kinds of water myths, and stories, like Ophelia and the singing head of Orpheus.
JH: Readers will invariably focus on myth and doctrine. I see those elements more like background music. They also aren’t meant to represent what they historically or even physically represent, as when somebody in your afternoon nap hands you a fork with no food on it and you thank him and simply eat the fork, which tastes like Special K (the cereal). I also noticed a kind of Confessional coming-of-age Bildungsroman fable (The subsequent 1000 odd color photos of the rest of your life) working in this collection. It may be beside the point, but could you address some of the “real-life” challenges you may have been facing that sub-atomically got engrained in the white spaces between the ink?
LF: Dadaberry Crunch! (Why didn’t Wonka invent the Dadaberry?).
The writing of diatomhero, in tandem with several events, was accompanied the realization that there’s no such thing as “odds”, because something is only randomly likely or unlikely to happen until it happens to someone you love or to you. The concept of likelihood or unlikelihood is a consolation device—and a privilege. This has probably been common knowledge to enlightened people for centuries, but I didn’t always know it. I used to feel that there was a difference between myself and someone who had died. I don’t anymore. That’s not a fatalistic statement, it’s a statement of gratitude, because gratitude is about recognizing randomness as much as it is about celebrating and honoring blessings—because life and existence are joys to be celebrated and honored, not because you’ve made it out of the hole thus far. One of the final images in Rorschach came from attending a dear friend of mine’s viewing. Some weeks later, I had a nightmare of her on the embalming table. But it ended with her zodiac sign (Cancer) leaving her body like a crab and scuttling off into the ocean. And then the crab ended up on the shore of the Riviera, in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, and climbed out onto the shore of that film, and her birthday (the 4th of July) fused with that film’s iconic fireworks scene. The nightmare had outsmarted itself and become an act of escape, of transfiguration.
JH: What classic cinema made this collection possible?
LF: I didn’t even come close to honoring the great religious films, like Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, though their spirit was very much an inspiration. Jack Clayton’s The Innocents. Scads of films that weren’t mentioned in the appendix. Carnival of Souls. The Virgin Spring. There are so many it would take far too long to try to list them. David Lynch’s work is always in me, like a kind of libido. Inland Empire. Children’s films that deeply affected me as a child, and that I vividly remember seeing on the big screen, are certainly in there, at least in spirit. Watership Down. The Last Unicorn. Fantasia. A huge influence that wasn’t cited was Kubrick’s 2001…the line “his life wrenched out of him like a discus/that goes flailing off to the Lord” was more or less directly inspired by the iconic bone-toss scene in that film. And the monolith scene at the end, in the marble mansion, with the sound of ancient man echoing through the hallways…right outside, like the tinkling distant sound of an orchestra would be audible throughout the halls of Gatsby’s mansion. That is beyond genius. It has never been equaled in film. Echoing because time has collapsed, and the dawn of humankind is now in the next room on the other side of the wall. Then the water imagery in the last scene of Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible—one of the most horrific and unwatchable of films, with the most beautiful ending–appeared, with its flashing space-time continuum, and the sprinkler system in that last shot that the children are gallivanting around fused with the Greek myth of Arethusa and Alpheus, united forevermore in the fountain. And of course the sprinkler system is also the biblical fountain, the fountain of youth, the godhead.
JH: Much has transpired when we reach the opposing Pioneers, yet I consider each essential bridge poems. The first considers the 19th century practice of daguerreotyping a dead child. Following the action in the previous sections, this is the first moment in the book that considers death may be an insipid motionless activity after all. Everything moves in the room with the dead person except the dead person. The second poem, however, maintains hope the mind of a shooting victim post-mortem is still very busy. I like how you give a little credence of the dead body, but ultimately have to ignore it. Do you feel society is too transfixed of physical aspects of being dead (and alive) and probably misses the exciting stuff?
LF: I think I’m too transfixed with it. As, of course society is and has been, down through the ages. Memento Mori. “Everything moves with the dead person except the dead person”…this is a brilliant question and a brilliantly worded question. I kept studying these Victorian daguerreotypes of people who had been photographed—right after they had died—with their eyes open. They had what Dickinson called “the distance/on the look of death” but it’s a distance that has also evaporated in itself mid-flight because the soul has left faster than the eyes can process the recognition of its leaving. You can see the same thing in some of Andres Serrano’s corpse photographs… an almost polite suspension in the eyes. There’s that soon-to-diminish flashbulb-brightness that’s always there, of course, but what we’re looking at is actually a stunned rapidity of departure. It’s not death that’s an insipid motionless activity, but the ‘politeness’ of the corpse itself, in its waiting for others to try to process it. I saw it as a taut bladder, like someone wanting to piss into salvation but holding it out of consideration for their loved ones/mourners, but after awhile they can’t hold it anymore, and their soul is starting to trickle out and piss itself. But they’re trembling, and their muscles are beginning to shake, and all sorts of things are starting to ‘fall’ out of their eyes… like the spider that appears, falling, gaping out of the eyes of the deceased, and falling out into the mourners, like all sorts of abominations and precious things, because the mind of the deceased is emptying into the beyond. The soul is being as courteous as it can for as long as it can, despite the fact that it is becoming more and more dazzled and seduced by the journey that’s now before it. But there is something gigantic starting to whoosh through the eyes, something massive, like a tsunami, and eventually that tsunami will flow out into pure light, into pure white water rapids.
The second Pioneers was inspired by an image on the Inland Empire deleted scenes disc (in fact, it was originally titled Inland Empire Deleted Scenes Disc, 16:36-11:06). The scene was a sequence of dulled, exploding lights that looked exactly like what someone who’d been shot in the back of the head while watching fireworks would have seen in their final moments. (And, interestingly, Lynch and the singer Moby do have a collaboration out called Shot in the Back of the Head, but it was post IE). The light slowed and imprinted, and it was as if part of American history itself had been shot, and was having a “life review” right up to the coast of the Atlantic, beyond which was England. The covered wagons had cycled back as far as they could go, and the holiday was flashing backwards into extinction.
JH: Mt. Fuji, Eden, Long Beach, Catalina, Tropic of Cancer, Scotland, Los Angeles, the Chesapeake Bay, Egypt, Sodom, Texas) are more memories than locations. There are also many instances where the speaker is making the most of bilocation. I’ll never forget when my old science teacher Mr. Jackson asked the PTA meeting “What if the human eyeballs are facing inward and we’re all looking at the backs of our own skulls? Please feel free to grab a Little Debbie cake at the exit doors. Watching you all eat makes me hungry.” How might diatomhero comfort Mr. Jackson?
LF: Mr. Jackson was obviously a genius. He reminds me of Jake Tucker, that character on Family Guy with the upside-down face, saying to Meg: “maybe someday we can get married, and you can go up on me”. The bilocation is toss-up, actually. Obviously LA, the Rockies, the Chesapeake Bay—all places or features of places I’ve actually lived—are drawn from real life, though very little in the book can be said to be autobiographical, in the linear sense. Most of the places mentioned simply presented themselves.
JH: Robert Duncan occasionally included fun characters into his dramatic verse: First Beloved, Queen Under The Hill. You too bring stock characters to life in diatomhero. Could you provide some gossip on the following funky bunch: Peg Powler, Willa Harper’s children, Old Man Bickle, Madame DuBois, Mike Teavee? I’m especially fond of Old Man Bickle. His farm is mentioned during your rabbit reincarnation stage.
LF: I’ve discussed Peg, aka Jenny Greenteeth, and Willa Harper’s children (Night of the Hunter). Old Man Bickle just appeared, though I suppose I must have been thinking of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. I think Travis would have been quite at home in this book; he’s not as far from it as he might seem to be. Madame DuBois just appeared. I have no clue who she is. And Mike Teavee, of course is the prodigal son of Wonkavision. In another poem (in the new book) there are souls that get churned up the blades of the Fizzy Lifting room, because, unlike Grandpa Joe and Charlie, they’ve not learned how to belch, or are unable to—the afterlife is full of hazards, after all.
JH: As a poet who plays with myth also, I’m consistently impressed by this work’s ability to incorporate myth without the reader needing to arrive at your text versed in that myth necessarily. In other words, you achieve equilibrium between the secular and the psychopomp. How did you check that balance while writing this?
LF: Thank you—that’s one of the greatest compliments I’ve received about the book. I’m glad it comes across that way, because I of course have no way of knowing how it’s coming across to anybody. I personally think that my poetry is wide open. There may be some relatively obscure references here and there and stuff, but I don’t think they really interrupt anything (I hope). What I really want is to create an images playground. Anyone can get something out of an image. Like being a kid at Disneyland, and riding Small World and being transfixed with wonder (rather than being consumed with wondering how the ride is mechanically engineered, like all those colorless and usually talentless academic critics with their obsession with “structure” are—as if an artist is incapable of writing a poem outside the “rules”; eg, the rigor of an institutional body brace and the breadth of geisha steps. The first rule of Fight Club is “joyless”, they might say). However, this book is also a form of warfare, to me– against the time-space continuum trapping us, against mortality physically aging us against our own evolution and wisdom. diatomhero is critical thinking transmogrified into the imaginative. It is a book of strategy. Not, I repeat, escapism.
But back to the joy of images unto themselves. I loved what you said, awhile back, about Robert Desnos’s poetry feeling like the ball pit at Chuck-E-Cheese. That was such a marvelous observation, just beautiful, and a wonderful description of a triumphant legacy. We all know how terribly Desnos died. But he won, and his readers are still jumping into the ball pit.
JH: Will your second book of poems be similar or different from diatomhero? A bastard cousin perhaps? Where’s the next path of Pane di Altamura breadcrumbs for Lisa A. Flowers lead?
LF: I’m working on a surrealist study of early childhood now, and I’m loving it, and loving the process of trying to remember the way children (I) saw things before they were literalized or contrasted. I am also doing a series of reverse tone-poems, transcribing images from Schubert to Arvo Part to Krzysztof Penderecki. These range from the delightful “transcribing” Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite—I don’t mean its actual story, but the images it gave me—was wonderful, like revisiting my early childhood. By contrast, transcribing Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima was obviously very dark. This transcription method was interesting because I would program in symphonies and just shift from, say, Pachelbel’s Canon into Penderecki, and the poetry would change instantly, be violently ripped out of itself into another image, with no warning. The poem would plunge sickeningly, like a heart monitor reflecting someone who had just had a massive and unexpected adrenaline dump. It was as if images from the Canon had been catapulted through the ceiling in a violent earthquake, and were lying dazed on the floor of the Penderecki apartment below, completely unaware of what had just happened. It also went the other way: going from Penderecki into the second movement of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto was like the train murder scene in Fire Walk With Me, when the angel suddenly appears to Ronette Pulaski and the screaming and the horror simply disappears into the holy silence of light, out of time. There’s more synesthesia going on in this book, too. And, I suppose, more films throwing their images into other contexts, though I’m not going to keep repeating the same theme ad infinitum—my hope is simply to keep catching images worth keeping. And I remain enchanted with something Werner Herzog said about the highest, most exalted points of the creative process, and its results: “there’s very rare moments where I get the feeling sometimes I’m like the little girl in the fairy tale who steps out into the night, in the stars, and she holds her apron open, and the stars are raining into her apron. Those moments I have seen and I have had. But they are very rare.”
Lisa A. Flowers is a poet, critic, vocalist, cinephile, ailurophile, and the founding editor of Vulgar Marsala Press. Her poetry has appeared in The Cortland Review, elimae, and other magazines and online journals. She is the author of diatomhero: religious poems. Visit her personal website here.
The Eggshell Parade brings you Connor Syrewicz reading (an edited-to-meet-FCC-regulations version of) his short story “Tomorrow ‘Dun Gone”, which appears in Issue 9 Spring 2012 of Superstition Review.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Emily Vogel.
The Eggshell Parade brings you an interview with writer Minrose Gwin.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from writer Catherine Lacey. Catherine reads her short fiction piece “(Grew),” which appears in issue 12.3 of DIAGRAM.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a The Noisy Reading Series reading and interview from poet Katharine Coles. Katharine reads her poem “Tempo for a Winged Instrument,” which appears in the July/August 2012 issue of Poetry.
Alfred Corn’s recently published tenth book of poems Tables is charming, confident, polished, ambitious, learned, elegiac, plus playful too, which makes the slim volume very seductive, poignant, intelligent, self-conscious, deeply-nerved and rooted; succinctly: humane. Tables brims over with both the visual and aural surprises we ought to expect from any and all great poetry, except here these serve Art and Humanity, not preachily, but indirectly, for the poet seems to be processing and re-processing both lived and creative experience for himself and us. A quick, direct listening in to this theme of re-processing can be found, for example, in these lines from his “Letter to Pinsky”: “…sheer chance/Which governs half of what turns out to happen/Can feel in retrospect like Destiny.”
Tables proves a raw, every-which-way roaming collection, an enterprise in full creative recall and exposure. Not only do we meet historical people here (Anthony of the Desert, Hadrian, Audubon, Brodsky), but also some related to the poet (Corn’s father, mother, grandmother, Pinsky, Hacker, Fenton, etc.), as well as some convincing shades of people affected by both personal and broader circumstances, like the imagined “senior chef” prepping bread in one of the towers on 9/11 in “Window On the World” and the “Unknown Soldier” who trails off by saying, “From nil and dark the self I knew calls out/For the small tag love once attached me to” in “From the Prompter’s Box.” The endeavor in Tables and its accomplishment/s are truly Dantean.
Corn’s latest poems consequently say there is no way through both the real and imagined life than living through them, which entails the facing and/or voicing of ugly or exalted extremes within families, relationships, friendships, the historical/spiritual, even such out-of-immediate-control externals as national or international conflagrations. Still, and this is what touched me most about the poems taken together, about the poet’s possible nature, if it may be deduced via the energy that made them and their sentiments be, Tables/Corn does not depress, does not sink into self-pity, sanctimoniousness, or misanthropy. Nor do the poems set the poet as above or better than the rest, though the poet is cognizant and communicative of his education, erudition, discipline, striving to grow, succeed, even please as an artist in our tragi-comical, rapidly changing world.
This is not a poetry/poet of self-indulgent escapism either. A poem like Corn’s “Window On the World,” which dares to offer critiques of and possible revisions for the way the 9/11 event has been told, its artifacts valued, proves it; just as do his more personal lyrics like “Resources” and “Series Finale,” where we only need an actual name or names to be dropped that we may have the personal drama/s more true-to-life. Alas, the poet errs on the side of manners/gentility here or perhaps what Aristotle termed “the universal.” Tables has its delicious moments of mirth, too, which lend a needed sweetness, for example, in the wistful, almost Disney/Downton Abbey-worthy poem “Dinner Theater,” where “Sharp Knife starts bantering with Mrs. Fork—/Quips and metallic whispers re Parsnip,/The fossil he’s been trying to butter up.” And more of this table-ready whimsy is at hand while deciding upon a dessert in “Fig”: “What’s to put forward but the sleek green fellow,/The veiny, five-lobed leaf your wineskin swelled/Beside?—like the one Vatican marbles wear/To spare shy gazers a betraying blush.”
So what exactly does Alfred Corn give to those who attempt an ambitious read, a daring to be moved by what is pondered over in Tables? Not only a voice that says life must be lived despite failures, gruesomeness, confusions, deaths, or residual/accrued pain, but a voice that says it is best done when we pause to reflect, consider, reconsider, talk, gaze, read, play, love, pray, eat, drink, fashion art; to pick, smell, consider not just the thorns on the rose bush of life, for they are there, but to acknowledge and celebrate the roses they protect! In effect, Tables shows how we can try and leverage as well as apprehend meaning in a rough and tumble, sometimes painful, sometimes misunderstood world of relations and situations with roots bitter and sweet and in-between. The collection insists upon a world and life that can be enjoyed, lived, examined, leveraged—personally or in community, over a meal, say, whilst at table, reminiscing, joking, or just breaking bread.
Poems from Tables that explore the above and ask for loving rereading: “What the Thunder Said,” “Resources,” “Series Finale,” “Window On the World,” “Coals,” “Dinner Theater,” “Corn, Alfred, D. Jr.,” “St. Anthony in the Desert,” “Priority,” “Vines,” “Upbringing,” “Audubon,” “La Luz Azul,” “Poem Found….,” “Futbol,” “Fig,” “Bond Street Station Underground,” “Letter to Grace Shulman,” “Letter to James Fenton,” “Domus Caerulea,” “New England/China,” “Antarctic,” & “Lighthouse.”
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from writer Woody Brown. Woody reads his short fiction piece “Sillyhead,” which appears in issue 12.3 of DIAGRAM.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Neil Shepard.
TY: I want to ask about line breaks, which can do a lot of work in free verse poems. What principles or rules or guidelines do you use when deciding when to break lines?
CW: I try to rely on composition as much or more than instinct. First of all, I aim to compose in lines. I don’t think of line breaks as an afterthought. For me, it’s helpful to read aloud while writing since line breaks are in part about breath. And relating form to content is essential. A poem whose energy is equable may want end-stopped lines with contained images, while one whose energy is frenetic or about a certain kind of momentum may require a type of enjambed composition. I ask myself, what is the poem trying to do? Different line breaks evoke different sensations.
While free verse isn’t governed by rules of meter or rhyme, there is no question that writing free verse can be informed by understanding how they work. I’ve found that experimenting with forms, especially with obsessive forms like sestinas and pantoums, has helped me see how lines work. It’s not surprising that the writers who proposed the radical idea of free verse in the early 20th century were fluent in meter and traditional forms. Discipline was a means to liberty.
Francis Ford Coppola said something that I relate to this topic; something that has stayed with me. When filming Apocalypse Now, he told Dennis Hopper, “If you know your lines, then you can forget them. But it’s no fair to forget them if you never knew them.”
I like that in part because his ruling of “no fair” sounds like a playground outburst. After all, there’s a certain amount of play as well as rebelliousness in creating. But he underscores the need for laying groundwork before launching squally inventiveness. Similarly, Charlie Parker said, “Learn the changes and then forget them.” Not that writing is the same as interpreting character before a camera, or improvising onstage. But there’s a similar sort of negotiation that is best entered with knowledge of the constraints and a certain amount of skill working within them.
TY: How do you know when a poem wants to be in sections rather than presented as a whole block?
CW: Different stanza structures offer different rewards to the reader, so I consider what I’m trying to achieve with the piece. I use similar judgment regarding stanzas as I do with lines: I try to bring the concerns of content to the needs of form. Changing theme, shifting imagery, musical modulation, the need for a strong pause are some things I consider when determining stanzas. As with lines, experimenting with stanzas brings to light for me the various ways they can build or temper tension and sustain the reader’s investment in the piece. I have a poem called Velocity about a drive at night and the rush of images the narrator sees in her headlights. I presented that piece in a unified block. The content was about an almost manic state and presenting the piece in a unified block created an unremitting tension that mirrored the narrator’s experience. Another poem in “Bartab”, Belly Up, is the expression of a kind of spiral of ruminative thought or anxiety. The same kind of stanza structure would have been too much. Ordering it in carefully composed lines separated the movements and mitigated the tautness.
TY: Some writers talk about inspiration – a Muse is the traditional term – is there anything in your life that inspires you to write and keeps you going when you don’t feel like it?
CW: I grew up in a very isolated place in the rural South and spent a great deal of time alone. That solitude along with an unpredictable and often violent home environment cultivated my imagination by necessity. In those years, flights of imagination were corporeal needs. They were acts of survival. Music and dance and language were terribly important to me. And they still have a power and magic for me that reach beyond fleeting pleasure or escapism. I’ve always tried to write songs I needed to hear. Now I try to write what I want to read. A startling image or seemingly insignificant detail can draw together a moment of unity or emotional clarity. This aspiration continues to summon me. Writing is also an urge for catharsis; a way to exorcise elements of my past and to process it. I know it sounds bizarre, but I have long felt that writing for me is a way to dialogue with generations of my family.
While I do it differently than I did years ago, for me inspiration requires surprise. When I was younger, I bought into the idea that an artist has to live a life of violent transitions. If I wasn’t feeling inspired, I felt it was my duty to go out and challenge stasis. I felt I could only draw on the experiences of upheaval and privation and exhilaration. I’ve outgrown that self-destructive urge, but the need for surprise remains.
Since I was a teen I have rather defensively defied traditional gatekeepers who hindered my efforts at getting my voice and work into the world to connect with a listener or a reader. I’m still driven by this. Before I began the manuscript for “Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad”, I had inherited a bit of the cultural disdain for feminine forms of expression, for the journal or diary. But after confronting events I couldn’t have possibly anticipated, I made a decision to work within personal narrative. Considering the challenges and dangers confronting girls and women, as well as the silence and secrecy surrounding those perils, telling our individual stories can be politically empowering. I teach writing workshops to women in recovery. When you give permission to these women to write about their lives, to talk about things that aren’t part of the cultural dialogue, it’s powerful. You can see the inception of a transformation. I’m inspired by the idea of a similar exchange with a reader.
I could go on about this topic. For example, I would love to talk about Lorca’s “duende” and how my pursuit of it has been important to me since I was a much younger writer. Suffice it to say, I find inspiration everywhere because I like to solve problems. I get excited when I read something that succeeds or excels in what it aims to do. I want to know how the writer achieved that and I set about figuring it out.
Perhaps more important than the question of inspiration is how to persist in its absence. For me, the answer is just that – persistence. Perspiration is more reliable than talent or inspiration.
TY: I hear lots of sound devices in your poems, which is one of the ways even contemporary poems can sound musical. Have you been influenced by music in your writing? Or how did you become conscious of and use sound so well in your work?
CW: I’ve absolutely been influenced by music. I grew up drenched in music of every kind. I was taught nursery rhymes from a very young age, and memorizing Bible verses was very important. We had songs and rhymes for every occasion when I was small that I still remember – a morning song, and one to say goodnight and even one for when I came out of the bath! It was great stuff, really instructive in language while filling me with delight. Not surprisingly, my first poems were really just juxtapositions of different words that were interesting for their harmonic interplay, if you will; experiments with the music of language. Today when I’m at work on something, I have found that reciting it while walking helps me explore its rhythm. I’m very conscious of poems as something read aloud, the physical sensation of their recitation, how it’s like singing. When talking with excitement about something I’m working on, I frequently slip and call a poem a song and vice versa. It used to cause me chagrin, but now I look at it as a blessing, the fact that there’s unity in the things I love to do.
TY: What writers do you return to most often? Why? What is in their work that continues to teach you?
CW: Andre Dubus, Sherwood Anderson, Richard Yates, Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, Susan Minot, Breece D’J Pancake. When I was a student of Gregory Orr, he talked to me about creating one’s family of writers, and I think it’s essential, really. Among poets, I’d say Sharon Olds, Charles Simic, Jane Kenyon, Gregory Orr. I love how Simic never gets in the way of the poem but trusts the unadorned image. But in talking about what I admire and try to learn from these writers, I could devote several hours to each.
Cesca Janece Waterfield is a journalist, poet, and songwriter based in Virginia. She has been selected three times to receive songwriter grants from The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). She is the author of Bartab: An Afterhours Ballad (Two-Handed Engine Press). Her poems and fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals. She can be reached at cescawaterfield.com
By Christopher Kondrich
Parlor Press, 2012
Music, for being such a well-diffused cultural product, can be challenging to adequately write about. Like many creative disciplines, it commands its own lexicon and sits atop a tall barrier of entry. But this shouldn’t preclude anyone who wants to get hip-deep; we’ve all experienced music to some degree and should attempt to verbalize our reactions to its influence.
Then you have folks like Christopher Kondrich, a poet who is clearly comfortable writing through the influence of music in his latest collection, Contrapuntal. The first instinct one might have with a book titled after the musical theoretical concept of counterpoint (two or more melodies moving with respect to each other), is to look for counterpoint’s influence on the book’s metrical and sonic aspects. Such an approach would not be a mistake, but Contrapuntal is more than a book of poems informed by musical theory. Kondrich transposes counterpoint and lyrical melody in a book that, yes, deserves to be read aloud (as most books of poetry do).
Four sections comprise the book, and each one is made up of mostly single-page title-free poems that read with a clear, slippery speed. The lines are mostly short enough to slide into one another without any friction on the surface, prompting the reader to stop and revaluate the lines being read. This is a metrical way of demanding a closer inspection, and the poems work for it. Without titles to ground (or disrupt) particular readings of each poem, it’s easy to lose focus on what the aim of each page may be, but the poems channel and direct the reader well.
Between “T”(“Tim”), and the narrator, a slight narrative emerges, but the dates and times are unclear and not really the point. They’re more like those previously mentioned melodic lines swirling around each other, occasionally harmonizing or just meeting within and throughout the poems. More so, there is a sense of self, and self-contradiction and counterpoint, that also swings throughout the book. Early on we get (from I feel it all time):
but either way I can
empathize with you,
not to mention empathize
with myself as I felt
that day telling you
that I can because
I did at the time
and I do now.
Like notes, certain words are emphasized and repeated within and between poems. Here Kondrich brings those notes into play, twining the threads of “you” and “I” and the various identities within the self. Rather than simply penning “I” poems, these lines drill down past the subjective, and by the end the “I” is almost lost. Later we get (from Tonight, the piano will project me into a dream):
threaded outside into something wonderful
and this is called counterpoint
a need to return to a previous state
buried beneath years of habit and rationale
Here the illusion of time rendered through music is brought into play with regard to the self, which is never really static or concrete, but a series of states paved over in sedimentary layers. On the next page:
that’s what one of your colleagues asked me
the man asked me if I felt looped.
If not looped, then maybe even conversing with the self, digging through layers—or not—and bound to repeat the same actions. The first poem of book 4:
I heard two voices
both of which were mine.
I was always afraid they
would remove what I held
in my invisible hands,
and then came the hour
I had to accept
because living meant
accepting the loss
of one hour after another,
of what felt like an hour,
which could be two,
which could be none,
a mere few minutes
compressed into a rock
the size of a thumb.
I spent part of the night
on the couch another part
at the kitchen table—
I would like some tea,
said one of my voices.
This is a solid example of Kondrich’s ability to express the experience of music, listening to music, and collating the voices in and around us. This is the final dissemination of self into segments, parts, a non-centralized existence without the core.
Contrapuntal is not a book about diametrics, bipolarity, or extremes, but rather a sonic and sonorous exploration of the way music, sound, time, and relationships exist throughout the body, mind, and self. Such a read is what contemporary poetry is poised to accomplish, and Kondrich has a measured and meticulous style that winds well around the musical and interpersonal ideas he’s presenting here.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Marie-Elizabeth Mali.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a reading and interview from poet Kelli Russell Agodon.
Trick Vessels, by Andre Bagoo
Shearsman Books, 2012
Reading Andre Bagoo’s Trick Vessels incites a strange and rather silly first thought: “the imperative sentence wages a huge comeback!” Dumb thought? Being kind to myself (a favorite past time of mine) I begin to scratch this first thought for its complexity:
A. There is no greater or more compressed ordering device in the grammar of English than the imperative sentence.
B. It is the God sentence, and thus noun may be swallowed up in verb, and understood through action: Go! Leave! Look! Let!
C. There is much authority in the imperative. Eliot, knowing this, blasphemed against that authority, and gave it an ironic twist in Prufrock, that prime example of modern urban equivocation and enervation: “Let us go then, you and I.”
D. This much authority in a post-structural age, used without irony, is a huge gamble. After all, are we all not relativists, masters of the “but, perhaps not”, whores of the non-authoritative. After all, are we not men- kinda, sorta, well… really not? Isn’t our language always correct, and non-committal? Aren’t we sensitive and caring, and “Aware” and “grocking” even as we aim our drones at lil children, and assorted other enemy combatants?
Damn, straight! (well, maybe…). The first poem in Bagoo’s Trick Vessels doesn’t only use imperatives. It uses God’s imperative: Let. Unlike Prufrock, it is not immediately undercut and sabotaged by equivocation. This is the precise, intense, unequivocal imperative of ancient poesis: the poet conjuring the world, making it up as he/she goes along, taking on the authority of a lower case god:
Let the daughter of the Hibiscus say: “His love has no end.”
This is let restored to the full, non-ironic, authority of invocation, and, reading the poem, I wonder if Mr. Bagoo might not be a believer as well as an anti-ironist. But the poem is too tricky to rate a mere Christian wave. According to the poem, this love that has no end is a flower, and that flower is night, and hence the title: The Night Grew Dark Around Us.
I think of that trickster, Bob Dylan, informing us: “it ain’t dark yet, but it’s getting there.” I do not think this is the same dark as Dylan’s sinister version. The Poet’s dark could perhaps be not unlike St John’s “Dark night of the soul.” It could be the dark of his skin, of his ancestor’s skin, the dark ripped from its negative relationship to light, and turned into its own species of light dark as a form of light? This is not at all unusual with poets of a mystic turn, nor is it unusual with poets under historical crisis and duress (consider Miguel Hernandez writing from a dank Franco prison: “I go through the dark lit from within.”).
Perhaps this night which is flower which is love is a wager, a leap into the absurd. A decision to trust darkness itself as the percipient condition out of which light comes and to which it returns. Night in the sense of love is tomb and womb as one, and reading deeper into Trick Vessels we find this sense of dark, of erasure, of trickery to be what the great critic Kenneth Burke called “Equipment for living.”
The trick vessels could be the slave ships, but, being trick vessels, they shape shift and are never one thing, never condemned to an absolute definition. If they must be identified, the trick vessels are the words of the poems themselves, the words of invocation, of magic, of night. Let us consider night first:
IV On Encountering Crapauds at Night (from the poem, Trick Vessels):
I’ve grown to love the backs of Crapauds/That hide in dark spaces between steps/
And bow as though at temple.
And on trickery (Part VI):
The fig tree could be a murderer
A bandit come to ambush.
And later in the same section:
A soft whisper can bite.
A world of murdering fig trees and biting whispers is a world in which things can be counted on to have no loyalty to seeming. It is a word of shape shifting, a tricky world of night and, in such a world, the only true ordering intelligence is invocation—the authority of words as magic, as act—as incarnation. In such a world, “let there be” without irony is still warranted, still efficacious. In such a world where soft whispers bite, language does not resort to irony, to the glib, to the entitled, the privileged, the self referential. It is a matter of life and death, a matter of the right spell at the right time, a ceremony of erasures against erasure. Night may efface night and not be lost. The light of day has no such power, cannot live in erasures, and must resort to Prufrock’s whining equivocate: “that is not it at all.” Protest here is swallowed up in the medicine and strength of words as an act of majesty.
Much magic thinking runs up against rather brutal modern realities (Bagoo is also a journalist in Trinidad), but this is not the magic thinking Eliot would have condemned as Prufrock’s form of “Bovarism.” Instead, these words of night are as vessels, as ships, a ceremony of journeying where the Unnamed Creature Said to Come from Water (Title of the second poem) assures us:
But I have such knowledge, /I ensure these erasures/I follow the stop. I do not leak.
Broken Vessels then moves from certainties to uncertainty in many respects (as erasures tend to do), but out of this shape shifting, this world where soft whispers bite comes a new dynamic. It may be expressed as: I may not exist, and you may not exist, but what exists, and what can be trusted in the ongoing dynamic between the you and I. Sure enough, in the poem, Preface for Seasons the voice of the poem addressed a “you” to which it is in relation. The seasons here as mainly liturgical, seasons of ceremony: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost (ordinary time is, as with most poets, left out). These are Catholic, but Catholicism is here but a form under which deeper orders hide and are enacted:
Some Lines from Advent:
There is a church inside a church/Where a mountain clump breaks off
And then from Incarnation:
Becomes a tree/the tree that breaks free/to become a ceremony
(note how this echoes the opening transubstantiation of love into flower into night. Trick Vessels is full of transformations under the signs of night, ocean, and the ongoing shape shifting of identity and politics).
From the section called Lent:
The values becomes valueless/ The desired is at first rejected/ the reject is later consumed.
This is a trick in theology known as transvaluation of values: the mountains are brought low, and the valley raised, the rich are brought low and the poor exalted, the valued becomes valueless, and the desired is rejected.
From Holy Week:
Thousands of touching hands/covers for secret agents
The praising mob that touches becomes the mob shouting crucify him. Judas betrays with a kiss.
From Easter (the shortest and most cryptic of the sections):
In between dreams/I make sense/In waking life/Chaos is hard to prove.
Chaos is not hard to prove in the night, and in the dark night of the soul, chaos is the only true order—the complex order of what has been lost and what might come to be—percipient order, the chaos of da Vinci’s deluge sketches—not void of order, but order as yet undetermined. We must resist the too easy chaos of contemporary life for it is not chaos but merely the random, the arbitrary, and these poems while shape shifting, call on something more than the arbitrary life. They call on ceremony. The poems of Trick Vessels are not the imposed order and false certainties of neo-conservatism, but an embracing of the power and force of night through the spell casting power of language–the magic that does not destroy uncertainty but which gives it value, and purpose. Because Bagoo’s poems do not traffic in false certainties, they restore the authoritative voice to its poesis—its intimacy with the dark, with the shape shifting upon which the poet’s older right to invoke most firmly rests.
In a larger sense, beyond the book, I see in Bagoo’s poetry a moving away from the equivocations of the best who lack all conviction and beyond the worst who are full of a passionate intensity. The poems in this book represent a movement away from equivocation, from irony, from the parody, the self-referential, towards a more genuine formalism—not the somewhat neo-conservative formalism of Hacker or, more so, the cranky formalism of metricists, but an older sense of poetry as the enacting of a ceremony, a vital and rhythmic invocation, almost liturgical in its use of the imperative, and the invocative. It is the genuine precision and formalism of spells, of prayer, or rhapsodic speech, a ceremony which must be formed out of the utterance itself to “order the sea.”
Bagoo might strike some as too sincere, as too insistent in his intensity. He uses anaphora, the imperative, the list, the rhetorical tricks of mystical oxymoron, and of transvaluation–all the tools of the magic trade—of invocatory speech. He undercuts such tricks at times with news from the world, but the world does not triumph over the verbal will here. These poems, as I said, are very formal in terms of their deliberation and engagement. Unlike the neo-formalists they are not about rhyme, meter, intellectual display or emotional detachment. Bagoo does not impose wit and order upon the landscape. He is not the return of Auden. He is, in a sense, the return of that which “Sang beyond the genius of the sea.” His is an ordering intensity—a ferocity of engagement which is always, by its nature, a thing of ritual. “A ceremony must be found” John Wheeler, the poet, wrote some eighty years ago. Bagoo has found that ceremony in this fine collection of poems.
The Eggshell Parade brings you a The Noisy Reading Series reading and interview from poet Michelle Bitting. Michelle reads her poem “Free,” which appears in the winter 2012 issue of diode.